Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Erroll Garner on Free Jazz

The interview with Erroll Garner in Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones offers a very valuable perspective on the theory and practice of free jazz.  He makes one of those observations that any serious jazz listener already knows:

There is nothing more free than Dixieland, with each cat playing something else.

Just about any side recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band can warrant this claim.  Garner then continues:

When it gets over nine pieces, they have to make arrangements.

In other words there is an “economy of scale” to the degree of freedom that can come into play in a free jazz session.  Of course John Coltrane pushed hard on this limit of scale in his “Ascension” sessions;  but it is clear that there were at least a few ground rules set down before the tape started recording.  Indeed, my guess is that one of the reasons why the ten-year anniversary performances of “Ascension” that got programmed by the San Francisco Jazz Festival are so disappointing is that the participants do not know very much about the rules set by the eleven musicians involved in the 1965 session at the Van Gelder Studio and probably do not know enough to set their own rules.  They may have also missed another one of Garner’s important points:

That’s what’s going to make the world in the future—freedom and coming together.  People can’t be free and going off in opposite directions or else there won’t be any foundation.

The 1965 session had a strong sense of that “coming together” around Trane, whereas the anniversary performances just involved a lot of performers and very little (if any) sense of togetherness.

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